In Watergate’s Wake, A Deep Division, But A Smooth Transition

In Watergate’s Wake, A Deep Division, But A Smooth Transition


Having just lived through months of the campaign and then several weeks of post-election anxiety, it’s a safe guess that not many of us want to rehash, in detail, what has transpired. There are few if any elections to which it can compare, and we can only hope it remains an outlier in terms of our national electoral process.

It was not, however, the only election to arise amidst controversy, or to take place during a moment of deep divisions within the country. There have been several instances where Americans have been asked to head to the ballot box to choose new leaders during moments of crisis and cultural upheaval.

One such occasion was in 1976, when former Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter squared off against President Gerald Ford. The campaign came approximately two years after Republican Richard Nixon became the first President in U.S. history to resign — action taken amidst a storm of controversy surrounding his involvement in the wiretapping of the Democratic National Committee Headquarters at the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C. Nixon, facing certain impeachment and removal from office, chose instead to step aside, paving the way for then-Vice President Ford to assume the duties of the Presidency.

Ford created his own controversy when, approximately a month after taking over for Nixon, he pardoned the former President, angering those who wanted to see Nixon answer for his role in the controversy.

By the time 1976 rolled around, the political waters remained rough. There was a lot of tangible anger in the country surrounding the Watergate scandal and the nation remained bitterly divided. In fact, when Election Day came in November of 1976, the near-even split of the country showed up in the final results: Carter won 297 electoral votes with 50.1% of all votes cast, while Ford won 240 electoral votes, 48% of all votes cast.

In Cheshire, the results were reversed and far less narrow. While it meant nothing to either the state or national outcome, local voters cast their ballots for Ford over Carter by a 5,506 to 3,646 margin. As The Herald’s Nov. 4, 1976 election coverage announced, even the town’s Third District, usually “Democratically inclined,” as The Herald article of the week explained, went for Ford over Carter, showing that, while the state was definitely blue and the country purple, Cheshire remained very much in the red.

In assessing what had happened, The Herald’s editorial for the week wondered whether much would change with Carter now taking office, despite campaign promises made:

The former Georgia governor was elected by virtually the same coalition of inner city and labor groups that brought Franklin Roosevelt to power forty-four years ago and made his New Deal the main political force in this country. Carter and the new Democratic Congress are committed to liberal policies and programs that, ironically, will strengthen the Washington establishment that the President-elect attacked in his campaign.

Carter is fortunate that the expectations of the American public for his administration are not too high. This means that whatever he does to inspire confidence and unify the country will be a pleasant surprise. In this sense, it is better for the new President to face a skeptical public than to enter the White House with an unmistakable mandate.

While Cheshire may have voted for Ford over Carter, and The Herald’s post-election editorial didn’t exactly read as a ringing endorsement of the four years yet to come, there were a substantial number of Cheshire residents who saw Carter as the best option to lead the country forward. One of them was Mrs. Judy Tan, who, in a Nov. 11 letter to the editor described herself as a “suburbanite for Carter,” laid out her “middle-of-the-road viewpoint” on why Carter had been her choice in the election. To put it succinctly, Tan believed that, despite the fact that many of the issues central to Carter’s campaign did not directly impact her, she saw in Carter a way to move forward rather than maintain the status quo:

The Ford administration has not dealt with these problems (of poverty and inequality) effectively, and those of us who supported Jimmy Carter hope and trust that his will be a more enlightened and constructive administration. Forty million people took that chance; and there were many Americans supporting Carter who, like me, were not a part of any special interest group or minority group, yet we saw the tremendous need for something constructive to be done and room for much improvement in our government.

Tan’s letter caught the attention the editorial board of The Herald who lauded the tone of the submission and the need for everyone to rally around the new administration. However, the paper warned that such optimism could potentially be dashed by a looming economic concern:

Mrs. Tan believes the Ford administration’s laissez-faire approach to such problems as unemployment and poor health care has been unsatisfactory. She hopes that Carter will have a “more enlightened and constructive administration.”

This wish for the new presidency should be shared by the 48 percent of the national electorate who voted for President Ford, as well as by the 51 percent who supported President-elect Carter. But the “unemployment versus inflation” argument around which much of the campaign turned was not definitively settled by the election. With inflation at an unacceptable annual rate of 5 percent, even the most purposeful and well conceived government programs could speed up this rate and run the risk of jeopardizing the free enterprise system.

Of course, The Herald’s prediction that rising inflation would be a central issue confronted by the Carter administration proved right, as what has become known as the “great inflation” period of American economics reached some of its highest levels during Carter’s four years in office.

However, those events were yet to play out, and by Inauguration Day in 1977, everyone seemed in a mood to hope for the best, something hinted at by The Herald’s Jan. 27, 1977 editorial:

The joy and vitality in new beginnings communicated itself to television watchers around the world, as did the sense of family solidarity. … The quality of self-reliance, that great transcendental virtue, was also embodied (in Carter’s walk along the parade route). It is a quality which may become of increasing value to Americans in the days ahead, when either because of gas shortages or traffic jams we may all find ourselves walking.

The campaign that led to the election of President Jimmy Carter bares only a small resemblance to the one that has led to the recent election of President Joe Biden. However, the issues facing both in the aftermath of their victories are strikingly similar — a nation divided, partisan rhetoric at a high, and a public increasingly pessimistic about the prospects of the future.

But what was clear in late 1976 and early 1977 was that many, whether they had voted for Carter or not, wished him well and took delight in seeing America once again participate in the peaceful transference of power. Hopefully, that kind of feeling permeates our current culture, and whether one voted for former President Donald Trump or for Joe Biden, we can all wish the best for the new administration, and perhaps begin the process of believing the best, not the worst, in those with whom we disagree.


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